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Council says ‘no’ to benefit extensions

A City Council resolution to extend the existing salaries and most benefits of city department heads for another three years failed to pass Wednesday night, after much heated debate and residents’ objections. Had the measure passed, it would have become effective before the newly hired city manager would have had a chance to take the helm or provide any input. Buried within the measure was also an item to provide new lifetime health insurance benefits for some senior city staff approaching or with between 12 to 15 years on the job.

Three votes were taken, with council members Jose Rodriguez and Cece Gallegos strongly opposing the measure. “This is wrong, and we have never agreed with this in closed sessions,” said Gallegos. “We need to still make more adjustments and wait for the new city manager. The salaries are still too high. And then they want to add lifetime health benefits? Residents should not be paying for that,” she said.

Mayor Andy Medellin, Council Member Donald Holley and Council Member Will Oliver had repeatedly voted yes for the measure, but Oliver ultimately changed his vote to a no, on the third motion. Council members Derek Robinson and Charles Rigby were absent.

“We owe it to our (senior city) employees to lift this cloud. These are (our) people’s livelihoods at stake.” Medellin said. We need to move forward. We have done our due diligence this last year (negotiating contracts). If we continue to show we are indecisive, continue to open it up to the public, then what were we elected for in the first place? I think it’s unfair to have a new city manager come to a new city and assess the staff from the get-go. The new city manager can review contracts at anytime and he would not be handcuffed,” Medellin said.

Council Member Jose Rodriguez repeatedly objected and pushed for any employee contract discussions to be delayed so the new city manager could be included. “This is why we have a $1.3 million deficit that’s only going to continue to grow,” Rodriguez said. “We cannot continue to use our reserve fund. We owe it to our community (to be transparent). I move that we table this motion until the new city manager weighs in. We can get his recommendations and give him at least a 60-day window. This new city manager needs to know what he’s jumping into. This is just the right thing to do...”

The measure had reportedly been under negotiation for months in closed sessions, and promoted as a cost saving by acting city manager Steve Frazier, Medellin and Oliver because senior department heads had agreed to the elimination of some of their more hotly contested perks such as management incentive pay and leave cash-out arrangements that had been quietly added over the last 10 years, and caused the City of Madera department heads to become notorious as among the most over-paid in the Central Valley, with some salaries and benefits exceeding that of surrounding larger cities and even the governor of California.

Residents in attendance called the timing of the contract negotiations desperate, and a sham — a token effort and drop in the bucket of the city’s looming $1.3 million deficit. Others called it a shocking end run attempt around residents’ previous outcries and demands to reduce high city salaries.

“It was a last ditch effort to bind those existing salaries and add more benefits for their pals — under another three-year contract, before the new city manager even has a chance to look at them. I don’t care what the Mayor or Frazier says. We don’t trust them anymore. There have been no reductions in any of the salaries. No change ... in any of that,” said one attendee who declined to give his name.

Residents who waited until after 8 p.m. to speak during the public hearing on the contract measure also said the important public item was again intentionally buried late into the council agenda, after several rezoning hearings, in hope that any objecting residents would leave. A written item concerning the recent lack of available parking near the Workforce Center at 2037 West Cleveland, in the area of Walmart, was moved up to accommodate 10 or so persons attending, they pointed out.

A measure was passed 3 to 2 to postpone the senior city contract negotiations until such time as the new city manager was hired and had up to 60 days to review the management contracts. Mayor Medellin and Council Member Holley were the two dissenting votes.

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